Wits West Campus, home of its law and commerce faculties, has grown its art collection impressively. It inspires students and staff alike.
A RADIANT, bronze, bare-chested man stretches to the sky in glorious exultation: the dramatic Unknown Miner, unveiled in March, soars three metres and takes its place among the many splendid works of art on Wits University’s West Campus.
The bronze Unknown Miner reaches up to the sky in exultationThe bronze Unknown Miner reaches up to the sky in exultationSculpted by Herman Wald, the Unknown Miner stands at the east entrance to the revamped post-modern Chamber of Mines building, a tribute to the many miners who have died labouring to extract gold from the depths of the Witwatersrand reef.
West Campus is a place of spectacular art, in surroundings that hark back to Joburg’s 50th anniversary in 1936, when the city was celebrated as a triumph of colonial Britain. For 50 years the campus was the venue for the Rand Easter Show, which began in 1936 with the Empire Exhibition.
It is lush with generous gardens and mature trees, one of which is a recently proclaimed Champion Tree, soaring 34 metres into the air and planted in the 1930s. It stands in the Gavin Relly Green, a place of green quietness where the bustle of students is left behind.
Once you have had your fill of the Unknown Miner, take a stroll around the building. Its two-toned concrete pillared facade is striking on the top of the hill, a worthy addition to the myriad building styles on this campus. Its interior contains a massive flat-domed glass roof.
Wits has another of Wald’s bronzes, the equally striking Man and His Soul, just below the Tower of Light, further down the hill. A thin circular piece, it is an abstract of a man entwined with his soul, a woman. It needs a moment to take in its simple beauty.
Wald was a celebrated sculptor from the 1940s to the end of the ’60s. He created the lively Stampede of Impalas that was originally behind the Rissik Street Post Office. It is now installed in the luxurious gardens outside the Chamber of Mines at 44 Main Street in the CBD.
Herman Wald’s Man and his Soul has a perfect roundness in its simplicityHerman Wald’s Man and his Soul has a perfect roundness in its simplicityHis other significant work, a five-figure sculpture commissioned by the Oppenheimers, is in the Diamond Digger’s fountain in Kimberley. The Unknown Miner is modelled on one of these figures. Its plaster cast was recently donated by Wald’s son, Louis, to Wits, and it was cast by the Wits Faculty of Engineering and the Built Environment. Its significance comes from the fact that the South African School of Mines, the precursor to Wits University, was established in Kimberley in 1896.
West Campus was originally known as Milner Park, the 28ha site of the showgrounds of the Witwatersrand Agricultural Society (WAS). The showgrounds consisted of a range of exhibition pavilions, and horse-jumping and cavalry arenas, writes Clive Chipkin in Johannesburg Transition, Architecture & Society from 1950.
In 1980, WAS sold Milner Park to Wits, and in return the society acquired the defunct Crown Mines site, known as Nasrec, where the Rand Show is now held every April.
Wits inherited colonial architecture from the showgrounds, particularly in the Cape Dutch building that is now the revamped FNB Building, which housed the South African government’s pavilions. Other examples of this architectural style can be seen on the northern edge of West Campus, where the university’s alumni offices are now found.
A north-south road, grandly called the Avenue of Prosperity, links these buildings to the 60m tall art deco Tower of Light at the top of the hill, its ground floor now a small tuckshop.
“Here were erected the white Movie Age pavilions that featured large blank surfaces, some with horizontal vestigial coursing; folded, splayed recessed and stepped shapes; vertical features, towers, fins; horizontal projections derived from Dudok but taking on their own momentum; flagmasts with modernistic ferrules; and blocked, three-dimensional sans-serif lettering for the names of the fellow nations and colonies of the Empire,” states Chipkin.
Five figures labour under a cross in The Cross BearersFive figures labour under a cross in The Cross BearersThe United Kingdom, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Kenya, Tanganyika (now Tanzania), Uganda and Zanzibar had pavilions at the Empire Exhibition, with the earlier layout indicating a space for a miniature Taj Mahal, notes Chipkin. Visitors from England came to Johannesburg to visit the construction site, such was the excitement in the build-up.
“The Empire Exhibition was the meeting-place, too, of dignitaries from all over colonial Africa,” records Chipkin. Mounted cavalcades, cocktail parties and dinner dancing took place, where caviar was served. “Nothing like it had ever been seen in South Africa before. Nor would there be a ceremonial gathering of this kind ever again.”
The arena stands look a little forlorn these days, the field in front of them now largely swallowed by the impressive Science Stadium building. It was in the stands that an assassination attempt was made on prime minister Hendrik Verwoerd in 1960.
Wits has used these inherited buildings well, and in the past two years it has enhanced the campus, home to 6 000 students in the faculties of commerce, law and management, with magnificent artworks.
Wits celebrates its 90th birthday this year, with big ambitions – by 2022, when it reaches its centenary, it hopes to be one of the world’s top 100 universities. At present it ranks between 251 and 275.
In the 1980s, the FNB Building was adapted for lecture halls. It was recently extended with an impressive semi-circular dome, containing two large lecture rooms, plus study, teaching, office and computer areas. With the extension came an ambitious plan to enhance art appreciation among the students.
In an article in the Wits Review last year, the honorary associate professor of the Wits School of Architecture and Planning, Kathy Munro, stated: “Remember, the great patrons of the arts in the Renaissance were the bankers and successful business leaders of their times and we would like to educate our students to become the arts patrons of the future.”
Paul Stein’s Concaternation symbolises the “connection between books and the chain of knowledge”Paul Stein’s Concaternation symbolises the “connection between books and the chain of knowledge”It was decided that, while the artworks would not be overly valuable, they would aim to “delight and inspire” the students.
Munro explained that a tight budget meant that posters and prints were used, together with donated works or others offered at reduced prices. In addition, there was a desire to include works by alumni like Karel Nel, Judith Mason, Norman Catherine and William Kentridge. The foyer of the FNB building contains five signed posters by Kentridge.
Six lithographs by Sam Nhlengethwa present tributes to South African artists and others whose works were unaffordable, like Marlene Dumas, Dumile Feni and Kentridge. Jane Makhubele’s beautiful beadworks fill some of the high walls, while original artworks by David Koloane, Roy Ndinisa and the late Thomas Kgope were acquired.
Natalie Knight, the art curator and consultant, assembled the West Campus collection. A challenge in the FNB Building was a curved wall which couldn’t hold artworks. So she created a wallpaper to reflect almost all the works that were placed in the building, including the sculptures outside.
Open areas and staircases contain carved hardwood benches.
Four concrete sculptures
Outside the building are two of four concrete Ernest Ullman sculptures on campus. Entitled The Miners, five faceless men stand in the groundcover, immediately grabbing the attention with their haunting presence. Alongside them is The Pioneer, an intriguing single figure clutching a book, looking up the hill hopefully.
Across the former Avenue of Prosperity is The Cross Bearers, a dramatic portrayal of five figures labouring to carry a large cross, their backs and heads bent to the task. Opposite it is The Family Group, a four-member family with interlinked arms.
A collage of images, with Jane Makhubele’s embroidered work, in the Mandela InstituteA collage of images, with Jane Makhubele’s embroidered work, in the Mandela InstituteOther nearby sculptures include the striking Concatenation by Paul Stein, a stainless steel rectangular interlinking chain, lying in the walkway below the Tower of Light. It represents the “connection between books and the chain of knowledge”, and does the job admirably.
Lawson’s Pinnacle is a tapering stainless steel needle reaching into the sky, which previously stood in front of Lawson’s Building in Jorissen Street, with its revolving restaurant on the 19th floor. It was commissioned by businessman Wilfred Lawson in the 1960s. Its new home, east of the Tower of Light, makes an elegant statement.
The New Commerce Building
Not too far away is the New Commerce Building, built in the 1980s and home to the School of Economic and Business Sciences. Lecturers and students used to avoid the foyer of the building, which was described as “shabby and drab” – but no more.
It is now a miniature art gallery, with colourful walls in green, violet, yellow, red and blue. The main wall contains six poignant watercolour prints by the talented Ephraim Ngatane, entitled His Moods and Memories. On the next wall are six panels illustrating the artist’s life and work. Ngatane died of tuberculosis at the age of 32.
Two wooden lions with seats carved into their backs sit comfortably outside a lecture hall, and are used all the time by students. Says one of the art: “The pictures are beautiful. When you look at them, you realise people have analysed things.”
The students have also been given space on the walls. Large, bold works of five students fill other walls.
The Olive Schreiner Law School is also worth a visit. New works have been placed in the Chalsty Centre, the Mandela Institute offices, and the staff common room.
Jane Makhubele’s safety pin Madiba shirts adorn a wall in the Chalsty CentreJane Makhubele’s safety pin Madiba shirts adorn a wall in the Chalsty CentreThe Chalsty Centre foyer contains works by Mason, Catherine, Robert Hodgins, Dumisani Sibisi, Roy Ndinisa, Johnson Baloyi and Sipho Ndebele. A passageway in the centre makes for a charming stroll, with several of Makhubele’s colourful safety-pin Madiba shirts lining the walls.
An Eduardo Villa sculpture now has company – it was recently joined by a painted wooden sculpture of Nelson Mandela, entitled Mandela Power, by Johannes Maswanganyi. Mandela rises in bright colours from a tree trunk, holding the South African flag.
Several walls in the Mandela Institute are plastered with a collage of Mandela and Graca Machel. Iconic images of the leader, two donated by photographer Jurgen Schadeberg, are interspersed with embroidered works of him and his famous shirts, by Makhubele.
Staff are spoilt too. Original drawings by Mason stimulate discussion in the staffroom, but perhaps the biggest talking point is the painting by Alfred Thoba entitled I Don’t Want a Judge in the Toilet. It depicts a man standing at a toilet, with a dog and a woman behind him, and another man looking in from a door standing ajar.
Jan-Louis Serfontein, a lecturer in the school, said that there was originally opposition to the painting. “Staff are not fond of it. You don’t want legal observation of your deepest private life. The law mustn’t follow you all over.” He says that previously the walls contained legal cartoons and Eurocentric works. He adds, with a smile, that legal people find it difficult to understand Thoba’s abstract work.
The art has surely enriched the lives of the students and staff. “The sculptures at Wits are a rich reminder of our difficult and contested past; they celebrate life and achievement and, set in the gorgeous gardens of Wits, are a fine tribute to the University’s people,” Munro and Knight wrote in the April 2012 Wits Review.
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